The Roots of Language: Appreciating How People Learn and Understand Language Helps Us Communicate More Clearly with Different Audiences

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Communication involves much more than language, of course, but when you deal primarily with written communication, you want every word, every nuance to be clear.

It was pretty clear to me at an early age that I was good at grammar, or, as it was called in my elementary school, language arts. I liked to read, and I read a lot. I wrote my own stories and plays, preferring to fictionalize the dramas of my life on paper rather than act them out. Science classes were like magic shows--I saw the trick but didn't always get it. Math simply put me in a panic. But ask me to diagram a sentence and I was on a roll. What I couldn't understand was why some of my classmates had so much trouble with grammar (or found it boring) when it came so easily to me. Even now, I feel that the words on the page tell me where they want to go, not the other way around.

So it's probably not all that surprising that when I grew up I started reading about how language works. David Crystal did too, and he's put his tremendous body of research into How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die (The Overlook Press, 2006). Crystal, a linguistics professor and leading author on language, has written one of the most comprehensive studies of language I've ever come across. Even better, it's readable. True, a lot of research has been done in this area. But unlike such excellent books as Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language and Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, Crystal's book covers everything you could possibly want to know about language: how we speak, how we learn to read and write, handwriting analysis, grammar, conversation, tone of voice, dialects, body language, different languages and more.

Before you ask why a professional communicator needs an encyclopedia on linguistics (at nearly 500 pages, How Language Works is lengthy but not overwhelmingly so), think about it this way: The stronger your grasp on all facets of language, the stronger a communicator you'll be. You'll be more likely to recognize and understand the meaning or intent of the piece you're reading or working on and be able to clarify it as needed. Now, I'm not a linguist-just a person with a knack for editing who happened to find a job doing what came pretty naturally. But what I saw in this book was a scientific way of describing what we as professional communicators do every day, without putting it under a microscope. Communication involves much more than language, of course, but when you deal primarily with written communication--publications, annual reports, e-mail and what have you--you want every word, every nuance to be clear.

"Probably no two people are identical in the way they use language or react to the usage of others," Crystal writes. "Minor differences in phonology [phonetics], grammar and vocabulary are normal, so that everyone has, to a limited extent, a 'personal dialect,' technically known as an ideolect." Taken together, those minor differences help define who we are and what we're trying to say to the listener or reader, who infers our intention as well as our identity. When we take the time to think about all the possible connotations of a word or a phrase, we have the opportunity to fine-tune our communication and, ideally, make it that much more effective.

Say what you will One chapter particularly relevant for communicators is "How We Choose What to Say." Crystal writes: "In theory, we can say or write anything we like. In practice, we follow a large number of social rules (most of them unconsciously) that constrain the way we speak and write. …